Self-Deception Part 6: Reaction Formation

The sixth installment in a new 10-part series on ego defenses.

Posted Feb 04, 2019

Source: Pixabay

In this new series on self-deception, I will spotlight 10 of the most important ego defenses. This sixth article is on reaction formation, which can be defined as the superficial adoption—and, often, exaggeration—of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one’s own.

A man unconsciously finds himself attracted to another man, but consciously finds this attraction flatly unacceptable. To manage the anxiety arising from this conflict, he over-acts the part of the straight or macho man, going out for several pints with the lads, speaking in a gruff voice, peppering his speech with loud profanities, banging his fists on the counter, flirting conspicuously with the barmaid, and so on. 

Other examples of reaction formation include the teenage boy who bullies the girl or boy he’s attracted to, the immigrant who becomes more native than the natives, the rich student who attends and even organizes anti-capitalist rallies, the alcoholic who extolls the virtues of abstinence, and the politician or religious leader who advocates or legislates against his secret vice—although, depending on the level of consciousness, this could be a case of hypocrisy rather than reaction formation.

Another example of reaction formation is the angry person who behaves with exaggerated calm and courtesy. Such a person may nonetheless express her anger through passive-aggressive means, that is, through unconscious resistance to meeting the reasonable expectations of others. Instances of passive-aggressive behaviour include paying back-handed compliments, being late on a regular but unpredictable basis, making tenuous excuses, sowing doubt and confusion, feigning compliance with requests, creating a series of barriers or obstacles, withdrawing usual behaviours (such as making a cup of tea, cooking, or having sex), and shifting blame and responsibility. As the name suggests, passive-aggressive behaviour is a means of expressing aggression covertly, without incurring the psychological and social costs of more overt aggression. It does, however, prevent the underlying issues from being identified and addressed, and can lead to a great deal of upset and resentment in the person or people on its receiving end.

A special case of reaction formation is that of two people who matter deeply to each other, but fall into a pattern of arguing or disengaging to dampen their mutual desire and dependency. B might accept that A is very important to her, but A does not accept this of B. A starts arguing to push back his feelings for B, while B argues back to cope with A’s stand-offish behaviour, that is, to protect her ego, vent her frustration, and temper her feelings for A. Until, of course, she gets fed up and leaves.

Another special case of reaction formation is that of the person who hates a particular group of people but loves those members of the group with whom he is personally acquainted. This helps to explain such phenomena as the misogynist who is devoted to his wife or the racist who marries a coloured person. This should not be confused with the ego defence of generalization, which involves thinking of a hated person as part of a group and then hating the group instead of the person. For example, a woman who is furious at her husband’s infidelity directs her anger, not at him personally, but at the male sex in general. Similarly, a man who has been neglected and abused by his mother is still able to love her, but only at the cost of having developed into an inveterate misogynist.

An ego defence that is close to reaction formation is undoing, which involves thinking a thought or carrying out an act in an attempt to negate a previous, uncomfortable thought or act. Examples of undoing are the absent father who periodically returns to spoil and smother his children, and the angry wife who throws a plate at her husband and then tries to ‘make it up’ by smothering him in kisses. The absent father and angry wife are not merely trying to make amends for their behaviour, but also, as if by magic, to ‘erase it from the record’. Another example of undoing is the man who harms a friend’s prospects and then, a few days later, turns up at the door bearing a small gift. Rituals such as confession and penitence are, at least on some level, socially condoned and codified forms of undoing.

Undoing is also an important feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. An obsessional thought is a recurrent idea, image, or impulse that is perceived as being senseless, that is unsuccessfully resisted, and that results in marked anxiety and distress. Common obsessional themes include doubt, contamination, orderliness or symmetry, safety, physical symptoms, aggression, and sex. According to the thought avoidance paradox, the more you try to fight back a thought, the stronger it becomes. Do this now: try not to think about a pink elephant—and all you can think about is a pink elephant! To reduce the anxiety and distress induced by an obsessional thought, a person may employ one or more compensatory acts which soon become compulsive in nature. For example, a person with recurrent thoughts of being contaminated with germs may develop a compulsive urge to scrub and scour her hands, so overpowering that her hands begin to bleed. 

On another level, a cleansing act may also represent an attempt to be rid of troubling thoughts and emotions, as with the murderous Lady Macbeth: 

Out, damned spot! out, I say! … Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!

If you have any examples of reaction formation, real or fictional, that you would like to share, please do so in the comments section.

In the seventh installment in this series, I will be discussing the ego defense of splitting.